'It hurt me to see my son skip off with a stranger'

Adolescents need ‘one good adult’ to turn to – and that may not always be a parent

Emily Mulvihill with her son Eoin (15) and mentoring volunteer Brian Doherty in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Emily Mulvihill with her son Eoin (15) and mentoring volunteer Brian Doherty in Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy


Peers may seem to be all that matters to teenagers, but they still need “one good adult” to turn to during the emotional turmoil that is adolescence. As parents we would like to think we are that “good adult”. But what if we’re not – at least for one or more of our own teenagers?

“You can be the best parent in the world and still a teenager might find it difficult to open up to somebody they know,” says chartered psychologist Niamh Hannan of Mindworks.ie. “Parents have such an emotional involvement with their own kids, it just can make it difficult.”

Children have different personalities and sometimes, no matter how much you love them, you can rub each other up the wrong way, she points out.

“Maybe you are too similar and react to each other. If they are going through troubled times, they might be coming across as angry in the house and getting a reaction out of you. That could be because they are down and they are anxious.”

As a parent, Hannan says, if a teenager couldn’t come to her, she would want them to at least have somebody, because research shows they are going to be more resilient and safer if they have adult support.

“Of course, I would like to be that support, but, if they don’t consider me to be that person, I would want them to have somebody.”

Increased child protection measures can, ironically, make it harder for 'good adults' to step forward

Even within perfectly normal, healthily functioning families, there are emotional, communication and relationship struggles as teenagers grow up. Often, they need to get an outside perspective from somebody who is more detached.  That somebody could be a neighbour, a friend’s parent, an aunt, an uncle, a sports coach, a teacher – although increased child protection measures can, ironically, make it harder for “good adults” to step forward.

“Just having that adult makes the young person feel valued,” says Hannan. “Even if we can’t fix their problems, just by providing that quality connection, that can help somebody too.”

The always-on world of social media that teenagers inhabit for hours and hours every day and which, on a superficial level, makes us feel more connected to people globally, is, perversely, creating a bigger disconnect, she suggests, “because we’re not being real. That disconnect is creating more anxiety and angst for young people.”

From her work in the past with teenagers, Hannan found that “very often they would have to be really rock bottom before they would open up to people around them – their friends or even family. Whereas it can be easier sometimes to open up to somebody who is that bit further removed because there is less expectation.”

Jigsaw, a national organisation that supports young people’s mental health, promotes the idea of “one good adult” helping young people to feel connected, self-confident and to cope with problems. Since none of us knows where or when we might play that role, Jigsaw runs workshops for those on the front line, such as sports coaches and youth work volunteers, as well as raising awareness through its website.

The concept came out of the My World survey, a national study of youth mental health conducted by Jigsaw in 2012.  It found that 71 per cent of adolescents reported high levels of support from one good adult in their lives, with 13 per cent reporting a moderate level of support and a further 16 per cent reporting lower levels of support.

 “The most striking difference between young people reporting high support from one good adult and those reporting low support emerged when young people were asked about seeking support for depression,” says Jigsaw’s communications co-ordinator, Matthew Oakes. “Overall, approximately 22 per cent of the sample reported that they would talk to no one if they were encountering depression. This number rises to 37 per cent when a young person reports low support.”

Big Brother Big Sister (BBBS), run by the national youth organisation Foróige, is a community programme that offers the support of “one good adult”. Operating in 20 counties, it organises almost 500 “matches” a year between a young person and an adult of the same gender.

 Young people are referred from various sources, including schools, psychologists, family support services, parents and sometimes the Garda, says Mary Lynch, senior officer with the BBBS programme. Young people can also put themselves forward.

Matches are carefully made and then supervised and supported by the 26 staff members

Criteria for acceptance includes “being aged between 10 and 18; they must want to participate in the programme as it is a relationship we are promoting and they have to have needs that are appropriate to volunteer intervention”. Volunteers, who are interviewed, vetted and trained, are asked to give a commitment of an hour or two a week for at least a year.

Matches are carefully made and then supervised and supported by the 26 staff members dedicated to this programme. The idea is that the pairs will share at least one interest or hobby that they can spend time doing together.

“We are asking volunteers to be an adult friend and a positive role model to the young person – but at the same time having a laugh and a bit of fun,” says Lynch. “If the relationship is formed, support and advice can be imparted much easier than ‘sit down and tell me all your problems’.”

The Unesco Child and Family Research Centre in NUI Galway did a randomised control trial on a BBBS pilot, “which proved to everybody that the programme does have positive outcomes for young people”, says Lynch.

“It improves their well-being, increases their sense of hope and improves their relationships with other people in their lives – their parents, siblings, friends. And it encourages them to think positively about education, even though it is not centred on education there are subliminal messages from volunteers about schooling and the importance of staying in education and thinking about plans for the future. They are also less likely to initiate any kind of drug or alcohol abuse.”

The programme also helps parents, from just giving them a break from the child, to supporting them in tackling issues, “so the child is getting it from a few different angles, and not just the parent”, says Lynch. Male and female role-modelling can be very important too for single-parent households.

“It is not for every young person,” she adds. “But the ones it is suitable for, it can be totally life-changing and it is through a very basic connection of friendship.”

Here are three perspectives on one match in the Big Brother Big Sister programme:

The Mother

After Emily Mulvihill’s relationship with her husband broke down four years ago and she was living on her own in Galway city with their two children, she was concerned about her then 11-year-old son Eoin who was “very aggravated, very angry”.

When she heard about Foróige’s Big Brother Big Sister programme, she thought it might help and got in touch. The local co-ordinator interviewed both Emily and Eoin at home before spending months making sure she got the right match for him – a mature college student, Brian Doherty (32).

If you had seen the child skipping down the docks along with him as if he knew him

Eoin was dubious about the idea and Emily, a chef at the Menlo Park Hotel in Galway, says she pleaded with him to try it for a month.

“Well my God, when he met Brian – if you had seen the child skipping down the docks along with him as if he knew him. It hurt me to see my son skip off with a stranger but he was comfortable.”

 After striking up an instant bond, Eoin and Brian have been meeting for an hour or two most weeks ever since.

“Eoin is a different child. He is very, very happy. It is just great for him to know he has somebody,” says Emily. She worries that Eoin, who has an older sister in first year of college, might sometimes feel left out as the only male in the house.

As his mother, she has found the programme to be a great support too.  If she was having issues with Eoin – for example he went through a phase of constant swearing and being very judgmental – she could ask Brian to raise it casually in conversation.

“You know yourself as a mother, you can’t keep giving out. No matter what way you go around corners – they don’t listen,” says Emily, who believes her own relationship with her son is “100 per cent better” since he began spending time with Brian.

The ‘Little Brother’

When Eoin Mulvihill (15), who is now in Junior Cert year, first heard about BBBS, he remembers thinking it was one of those things where you are treated “as if there is almost something wrong with you because of your circumstances”.

 He felt it was “a bad and weird thing” to be doing.  “Now that I did it, I’m happy out like.”

 At the time, “I felt everybody was against me. Most of the time I got violent, very, very quick. I was very short tempered. But doing Big Brother really showed me that everybody is not out to get me. Everybody is trying to get by in their own way.”

 It just led to lots of fights and the teachers not really liking me

As soon as he met Brian Doherty, “we just clicked with each other. I think we have a nice bit in common.”

 It came at an opportune time, as Eoin admits he “absolutely hated” first year at St Joseph’s Patrician College, known as “The Bish”.

“Because of my anger back then, the authority of the teachers, and trying to get on with new people and with my way of reacting violently to everything, it just led to lots of fights and the teachers not really liking me.

“I did make loads of friends, but they were all the wrong type of friends. I think it was the start of second year I realised what’s going to end up with me if I keep on going with the way I’m going. I got myself into a different squad of friends.”

Did talking to Brian who, coincidentally, had gone to the same school, help sort these things out in his mind?

 “Definitely,” says Eoin. “Even just for that hour, walking around town. I didn’t even have to be talking about things that were annoying me personally. It is weird to explain – just talking to somebody, and having that time out of the world and out of the house, is just so helpful.”

Eoin’s favourite time with Brian is when they are “just chilling out and drinking a hot chocolate” in one of the two coffee shops they like to frequent on Shop Street. Although Brian is 20 years older, Eoin has no doubt that they will be friends for life.

“You could say he is a wise old man,” he laughs. “The main thing we joke about is how different it was back then compared to now.”

Eoin is not quite sure how Brian managed it, but he knows he helped give him a different perspective on what his mother was going through and that their relationship has improved as a result. And he doesn’t mind that she checks in occasionally with Brian or vice versa. Everything is running smoothly at home now.

“I can see what it is like for some people my age because they don’t have that older person they can call a friend,” he says. “Nobody mature to show them the guidelines for turning into an adult. But Brian is smart about it – he doesn’t preach.”

Eoin is hoping to join the Army when he leaves school and would also love to be a Big Brother himself in the future, “to help somebody else”.

He adds that wants to say to young people like him that BBBS might seem daunting “but you miss every shot you don’t take – so give it a shot”.

The ‘Big Brother’

Brian Doherty (32) returned to his native Galway in 2014 after several years of travelling and decided to go back to college, having previously dropped out, to do a degree in youth and family studies in NUI Galway.

He wanted to do voluntary work and heard about BBBS from his younger brother who was already involved as a mentor.

Eoin was Brian’s first match and he agrees they both clicked right away. It just took a couple of months before the teenager started to open up more.

“We felt relaxed in each other’s company and I was trying to give him advice as much as possible, in whatever way I could from my own life experience,” he says. “Just to be a good influence on him, I suppose, and not be too much ‘you should be doing this and doing that’.”

Like a lot of young Irish males, Eoin struggled with self-esteem and confidence, says Brian.

Eoin is very chatty. We are just like two mates hanging out. There are plenty of laughs

“I tried to push that forward, that he’s a smart, intelligent young man and that he could do anything he wants, and tried to keep that in his head. I think it worked.”

Despite the age gap, making conversation has never been a problem. “Eoin is very chatty. We are just like two mates hanging out. There are plenty of laughs.”

With Eoin studying for the Junior Cert and Brian being in his final year at college, they generally meet now only every couple of weeks. “Even when we don’t, I try to ring him at home, to have a bit of a chat and see how he’s getting on. We would keep in regular contact.”

Brian knows that finding male mentors for BBBS is a real challenge. “I say it to a lot of my friends and they sound interested” – but they don’t follow through. He doesn’t know why, “whether it’s too time consuming, or whether they are just saying they’re interested”.  

Seeing, in hindsight, the influence he has had on Eoin has boosted Brian’s own confidence. The programme “is of real benefit to me”, he adds.  “I have loved every minute of it and, more than anything, I have made a friend for life.”

For more information, see foroige.ie

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